Can one trust a sonata? Charles Newman, In Partial Disgrace, pt 2

[Of the Professor v. Felix:] The difference between them, after all, was that the Professor truly believed he was the first mortal to set foot in the mind, and like every true colonial assumed that mere priority allowed him to name it and submit it to his laws.

 Like Sterne’s protagonist, Newman’s (Iulus) talks endlessly about his father, Felix (Protestant ‘Marxisant’ and advocate of ‘hands-on mysticism’, who ‘liked it out there on the edge…where one could write in order to stop thinking, and lose the shame of being an author’); here’s some of his advice to the boy:

1. Neither marry nor wander, you are not strong enough for either. 2. Never believe any confession, voluntary or otherwise. And most importantly, 3. [In Latin first, then in English:] Everyone has a cleverer dog than their neighbor; that is the only undisputed fact.

Psalmanazar's Formosa

An illustration from Psalmanazar’s phoney account of the people of Formosa – as fantastic a fake memoir as those of Felix and Iulus. Picture via Wikimedia Commons

Then there are the Pynchonian names of the central characters: Felix Aufidius Pzalmanazar, the ‘Hauptzuchtwart [dog-breeder] Supreme’ and ‘historian of the Astingi’ – a fictitious tribe of the central European plains, in the country of Cannonia (where at dusk ‘everything is the colour of a runaway dog’!), loosely equivalent to Hungary – alludes to the French impostor or con-man, Georges Psalmanazar (1679-1763), who became a brief sensation in Augustan England with his exotic traveller’s tales of ‘Formosa’ and his fake memoirs – a prototype Felix (or Newman).

Much of the novel consists of long, Socratic ‘savage debates’, a ‘battle of the polymaths’, a ‘rhetorical onslaught’, between the sceptic-stoic Felix (who claims, in a typical paradox, that ‘Dialectics do not interest me, though like ballsports, I am good at them’) and his soulmate-antagonist, the Professor, ‘the master speculator’ as Felix provocatively calls him, a thinly disguised Sigmund Freud, who brings a series of disturbed dogs to be analysed and trained by the renowned dog-trainer/breeder – a clear dig at the failings of psychoanalysis, for the Professor can’t cure (or even understand) his own neurotic dogs (see the quotation at the head of this post, which sums up the philosophical difference between them):

“You’re no Jew, Berganza,” he often giggled, “just a Calvinist with a sense of irony.”

Another of those literary allusions with multiple levels of significance is Felix and the Professor being likened for these endless Socratic disputes by Felix’s wife, Ainoha (possibly a name derived from a Basque place-name known for its image of the Virgin Mary, and girl’s name, Ainhoa; or is it just a pun on ‘I know her’?) to Scipio and Berganza: these are the two dogs whose satiric colloquy, with its rhetorical-polemical format based on Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, forms one of the Novelas ejemplares of Cervantes (1613).

I could say so much more about this novel, with its multiple layers and highly charged prose, and wide-ranging, esoteric-comic material, such as the Astingi people’s culture and religion – ‘savage and disconcerted’, Felix calls them), or aphorisms like ‘You can get away with murder in America, but only in Europe can you be really bad’. But it’s more than just a clever puzzle or palindrome of wordplay (though there’s nothing wrong with that) – there’s some interesting insight into Newman’s views on the writing (and reading) process, with which I’ll end (having touched on it briefly in my previous post).

Newman In P Disgrace coverIn a chapter called ‘Ex Libris’ Newman gives Felix’s son Iulus’ account of Felix’s huge literary project: to write a history of the Astingi disguised as a Traveler’s Guide ‘in order to make a market for it’ – which sounds like a dig at American publishers. His description could serve as a heartfelt insight into Newman’s own obsessive, meticulous, never-ending collector’s writing methods and technique:

Working at top speed, he usually produced about one hundred and twenty sentences of impossible terseness per night.

He goes on with what looks like a self-portrait, and a grim discussion of what In Partial Disgrace cost to write:

Writers are people who have exhausted themselves; only the dregs of them still exist. Writing is so real it makes the writer unreal; a nothing. And if one resists being a nothing, one will have the greatest difficulty in finishing anything.

Nor did I know that in his hyperfastidious, shamelessly private mind, he was envisioning a nonexistent genre. For no one ever writes the book he imagines; the book becomes the death mask of creation, it has its own future and survives like a chicken dancing with its head cut off. And the spy knows this better than anyone; to write anything down is to take colossal risk. In life you can mask your actions, but once on paper, nothing can hide your mediocrity.


Later, when shadowy CIA spook Rufus is reflecting on his (triple) agent Iulus’ reports, this is his conclusion:

Of course, there will be those who will ask how far can we trust such a narrator? This is rather like asking the question: can one trust a sonata?

Perhaps Rufus has come to see, after his time in the ‘inchoate’, counterintuitive province of Cannonia, that the usual modes of perception, representation and philosophy don’t apply. And that goes for the ways we interpret written texts: genre and verisimilitude are irrelevant, delusions. Here he considers how the Cannonians and ‘their Astingi comrades’ love ‘puzzles and the darkest riddling’:

…for thinking in their view is not real thinking unless it simultaneously arouses and misleads one’s expectations of symmetry. But their love of riddles has a moral dimension which is easily missed; games for them are also always ethical tests.

When Iulus hears the final colloquy of the Professor and Felix, in which his father, whose life’s literary work has blown away on the wind, fiercely denounces conventional historians (and warrior-thinkers like Marcus Aurelius), he (Iulus) is deeply impressed:

Thus ended my aristocratic education. I had learned everything I needed to know for my career. For life with friends and lovers is essentially this: that we assist each other in recovering and rewriting the book which is always blowing away, when the words don’t mean what you say.

An equally apt summary of the novel and novelist is given with Rufus’ verdict on Iulus and his writings, who he knows to be more than just ‘turncoat, nor a cipher, cryptographer…dissembler, or counterfeit’; he’s reflecting, as most of this novel does, on the nature of narrative:

How I would miss his profound but smiling pessimism, his nacreous intelligence, this fideist to the school of gliding. He was one of those strange people who, having rectitude, didn’t need freedom. Even now, rereading his scattered cantos, it is as if he is sitting in the room talking personally with me, the secret of all great writing.

‘In Treatment – Series 1’: DVD review

Dr Paul Weston

Dr Paul Weston

For some years HBO has been producing  the best TV drama in the English language.  Quintessentially American themes and settings are central in Boardwalk Empire, John Adams, The Sopranos, The Wire and Treme (and there’s a noticeable spanning of historical periods there, too), while the fluctuating fortunes of American service personnel in harrowing foreign conflicts are the basis of Band of Brothers and Generation Kill – where the action again spans two different periods of recent history.

In Treatment is set in the contemporary USA, but it’s an adaptation by Rodrigo Garcia of an Israeli TV series Be Tipul created by Hagai Levi, who became one of HBO’s executive producers for the programme, along with Garcia, Steve Levinson and Mark Wahlberg.  The themes are therefore universal:  what makes human beings behave the way we do, and how do we cope when our lives unravel?

So far I’ve only watched season 1 (there were three, which aired between 2008-2010).  An unusual feature when In Treatment originally aired on TV was that each nightly episode showed one patient’s session with Dr Paul Weston (played by the Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, thankfully using his native accent, thus flouting the HBO tradition of employing actors from the British Isles to play American-accented characters), a psychotherapist in his early 50s practising successfully in Maryland, and there were five episodes per week, one per patient.  Unlike soap operas, where multiple storylines intertwine and develop separately in each episode, this enabled the writers and directors to concentrate on one storyline per night, and really probe deeply into the life of the patient and their dilemmas, while also developing Paul’s increasingly complicated reactions to the problems presented by his patients, and his growing inability to remain emotionally detached.

The pattern in Series 1 was that the four different patients featured Monday-Thursday for eight weeks, then in week nine, for various reasons, only two stories remained.  The fifth episode each week featured Paul’s own  sessions with his former therapist, Gina (Dianne Wiest), in which he attempted to wrestle with his own conflicts arising from his interaction with his patients, and, in later episodes, accompanied by his wife Kate (Michelle Forbes), as his ailing marriage came under scrutiny .  There were thus 43 half-hour episodes in the series.

Gina, who supervises and counsels Paul

Gina, who supervises and counsels Paul

Some of the patient stories were more engaging than others – but isn’t this true of real life?  The outstanding story for me was that of the teenage gymnast and Olympic hopeful, Sophie (superbly played by Mia Wasikowska, who went on to play the eponymous ingenue heroine in Tim Burton’s 2010-11 Alice in Wonderland – a very different role from Sophie), who seems to have a death-wish resulting from the unbearable emotional pressures she experienced in childhood – her father was a photographer who specialised in female nudes and personal promiscuity; she idealizes him and deprecates her long-suffering, fraught and loyal mother.  As the weekly sessions develop under Paul’s gentle, caring gaze, and he gains Sophie’s trust and affection, subtly enabling her to see the cruelty and weakness of her selfish father, Sophie slowly discovers the truth of her parents’ natures, and learns how intolerable it was to have had the burden of a shared secret placed upon her by her philandering dad.

The other most successful patient story for me was that of the Navy pilot hero, Alex (Blair Underwood), who on a bombing mission in Iraq accidentally caused the deaths of children.  Brashly confident, even arrogant on the surface, Alex feels guilt and remorse underneath; this inner conflict resulted in his suffering a heart attack.  Although Alex believes he’s recovered physically, Paul faces the weighty problem of trying to convince him that his problems have not been resolved during their weeks of treatment, while Alex is determined to cajole Paul into giving him a clean bill of mental health so that he can return to combat duty.

Navy pilot Alex

Navy pilot Alex

Where the set-up became a little stagey and less convincing, I think, was in the most emotionally tangled storyline: a beautiful doctor in her late 20s, Laura (Melissa George) presents herself as someone who believes the only way she can induce men to relate to her is through sex.  Worse, she declares that she has fallen in love with Paul.  By the end of Series 1 Paul has had to confront his own feelings for Laura, and the possibility that he  drove his wife Kate into an affair with another man.  Paul’s weekly sessions with Gina become the most compelling in the series.  They show a different side of Paul’s character: he’s in denial, angry, vulnerable, and takes out his frustration on the always patient Gina.  There’s history between the two of them, and this back-story gradually emerges over the episodes.  It will clearly develop further and become clearer in Series 2 and 3.

The final storyline involves a passionate but fractious young married couple, Jake and Amy (Josh Charles and Embeth Davidtz), who have come to see Paul initially to resolve a clash of views about whether Amy should abort the child with which she is pregnant, but subsequently to deal with more complicated issues arising from their constant fighting.  Amy’s supercilious patronizing of her husband incenses him, yet she hates it when he starts treating her with more sensitivity.  Paul faces a difficult task in trying to prevent these two tearing each other, and their marriage, to pieces.

It has probably become apparent by now that the storylines aren’t selected in a random way: they all comment on and infiltrate into each other in the viewer’s mind (and Paul’s, and ultimately into the lives of his increasingly imperilled family).  As the ninth week finishes there are still unresolved issues and crises which in some cases are almost unbearably tense and emotionally draining for the participants and the viewer.

And that’s what makes this series such compelling viewing.  The situation is audaciously undramatic: most of each episode is set almost entirely in Paul’s consulting room.  We gradually become familiar with the objects with which he has filled it, and understand their symbolic significance: the numerous model sailboats, the perpetually swirling tube of blue liquid (a desktop toy) usually glimpsed in the background as his patients unwillingly, fearfully tap into the swirling emotions that have brought them to this room.  There is intense drama here, and it’s mostly conveyed through facial expressions and the struggles of the characters to suppress as well as explore emotional states, as well as through the inevitably lengthy dialogues between Paul and his patients.  We see and feel their pain, yet this is done without prurience or making us feel we’re intruding.  This is us up there on the couch.  All of us.

Byrne’s performance is what holds the whole thing together.  He dares to act quietly (until he’s in his sessions with Gina; then he’s transformed.)  Although the therapist’s role by definition requires a character who listens and watches, refrains from dramatic interventions or snap decisions, resists provocation from vulnerable patients who often lash out (or try to seduce), Byrne succeeds with masterful subtlety in convincing us that here is a man who is deeply caring and professional, committed to trying to help these people, and yet also deeply flawed.  His eyes show all this, and the way he holds his hands or tilts his head and regards the person opposite him, his face a mask of neutrality but with deep compassion and love shining through (but with Gina his less professional self is revealed – with her he shows that he lacks insight into himself.)  As the weeks pass by we are drip-fed tiny drops of information about his own emotionally traumatic past, his own conflicts, doubts and weaknesses.

The show has been criticised for exaggerating the ways in which the Byrne character enables the boundaries between therapist and patients to become blurred.  But come on, this is a TV series; no fatal flaw, no drama.  If Duncan had died peacefully in his bed we’d have no Macbeth.

I found In Therapy had weaknesses, but it’s still one of HBO’s most successful artistic and dramatic productions, because of its self-imposed constraint and restraint.  That takes nerve, but it works.  This show proves that we don’t need vampires or guns to create nerve-shredding tension and deeply moving insights into the human psyche, to show the ways it causes us to hurt each other in mystifyingly painful ways, how resilient we can be when those who love and help us refuse to give up on us, but also how fragile we are and prone to destructive self-hate and misguided, toxic guilt.  And it’s not always our parents’ fault, Dr Freud.

Can’t wait to watch series 2 and 3.

Dr Sigmund Freud (Wikipedia photo)

Dr Sigmund Freud (Wikipedia photo)

A version of this review appeared on Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013 at Blogcritics